At least 30 percent of creative nonfiction is devoted to reflecting on etymology. We examine the words we use everyday. Fruit, from the Latin frui, meaning to enjoy; paragraph, from the middle French for stroke, as in a painting; field, from the German Feld, for open country; language, from the Latin lingua for tongue. The trend in nonfiction is to meditate on the the roots of our language to explore its deeper, older meaning.
But what about the etymology of etymology? The definition is embedded in the the word itself. It describes itself. The word etymology is self-referential, like a hipster trying to be ironic. Etymology is its own inside joke, wearing seventeen layers of irony. Etymology wears beanies with collared shirts and eats egg whites with spinach on whole wheat toast. Etymology knows what time it is.
Etymology comes from the Greek etumos, for truth. It was adopted into Latin where it had a good life before going to middle French to mean a field of inquiry, and after graduation found its way into English, and then ended up in English departments, as the creative decision to plunge backward through itself into its own roots. Like all words that move from English to English departments, its meaning becomes questionable, which is why etymology is used so often in application, but not applied to itself. Worlds could end if etymology, too, was explored into its roots, dug up, transplanted to an essay, and placed in new soil.
As field of inquiry into truth, in its origins, etymology is an artistic form. An essay could be an etymology, gathered into a collection of etymologies. An essay looks backwards, reflects, investigates. The sixteenth century French writer Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais established the literary tradition of using nonfiction to explore ideas, to “test their quality” according to the etymology of essay, may have simply been creating expansive etymologies, long-form etymologies, extended inquiries into truth. Maybe this is what the field of creative nonfiction, in all it encompasses, is meant to do. Journalism, biography, history, documentary, and auto-theory are all founded on etymology, rooted in root-seeking.
I have only recently started using etymology in my writing, but I think it’s more than a trend. It’s a strategy, and one that is regularly tested. I am beginning to use this strategy more and more. When I write, I start on the ground and dig up the roots around me to see how far they go, to see where I can go from there.